The Indian Fire - Prescott, AZ

Wednesday, May 15, was a sunny, warm and breezy day in the Prescott, AZ, area. The fire danger rating was at the top of the scale and registered as "extreme." All of the area's emergency service agencies were poised and ready for "the big one." Today would be THE day.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Firefighters are at the structures as the firefront slams into the Cathedral Pines subdivision.

It was about 2:30 P.M. and Duane Steinbrink, Prescott Fire's fuels management officer, and I were attending to our duties at Prescott Fire Department (PFD) Station 72/PFD Headquarters when we heard an unusual message coming over the fire frequency radio. PFD Captain Tim Sheehan, in Engine 72, was reporting a column of smoke south of Prescott Center. At about the same time, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Engine 3-0 Captain Todd Rhines, located at PFD Station 71, was also reporting a column of smoke to his dispatcher at the USFS Fire Center. The 911 calls began to flood the communications office and both PFD and USFS fire crews were now enroute to what would become known as "The Indian Fire." The name of the fire came from the point of origin in the Indian Creek area of Prescott.

Steinbrink and I stepped outside of Station 72 and observed a light column of smoke about three miles away. We started for it. Within 30 minutes, the column had changed dramatically to a heavy, dark-colored plume as the Indian Fire grew to over 100 acres and began to crown out in the Ponderosa pines of the Prescott National Forest (PNF).

The Firefight Begins

Fire apparatus from the PFD, Central Yavapai Fire District (CYFD) and the USFS responded for an initial attack strategy. USFS Captain Todd Rhines arrived and took command as the incident commander. He gave his initial size-up report and ordered additional resources. Enroute were Division Chief Tony Sciacca, the PNF west sector district ranger; PFD Chief Darrell Willis; PFD Deputy Chief Paul Laipple; PFD Battalion-1 Chief Brad Malm; and CYFD Chief David Curtis and Fire Marshal Charlie Cook and their BC-3.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A total of five structures and two out buildings were ignited at the Cathedral Pines subdivision. Many other homes were directly threatened and were successfully protected during structure triage and protection operations.

Air tankers, helitack and the Prescott Interagency Hotshot crews were ordered to the incident. The fire, being pushed by strong winds and fueled by tinder-dry forest fuels, spread with extreme speed toward Highway 89. The Ponderosa Pines subdivision was directly threatened and many of its residents, who were in town or at work, began to drive into the fire area, some in a state of near panic. Traffic control and evacuation were becoming a safety challenge.

As the local and federal fire commanders arrived on scene, the incident was transitioned from Rhines to Sciacca. Additional resources, fire commanders, and support personnel from area fire and emergency agencies began to arrive at the hastily established command post at the Indian Creek Campgrounds. Reconnaissance missions and ongoing size-ups were made.

According to a long-standing pre-plan of attack, critical sector/division assignments were rapidly established. A structure protection group was initiated. Evacuation plans were assigned and implemented. Planning was well orchestrated with no confusion at a time of intense fire activity when lives and homes were severely threatened.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Firefighters from the Prescott Fire Department and the Central Yavapai Fire District quickly gather to map out a plan for structure protection in the Cathedral Pines subdivision.

"We had a written plan and we drilled on that plan for about 12 years," Willis said. "Interagency cooperation was incredible and the plan was executed just as we had trained on it."

Sciacca added, "These local firefighters have a tremendous amount of pride in what they do. We all knew our roles (during this fire) and there was no confusion. This firefight rates up there as one of the best initial attacks I have ever seen. Two additional components helped to control and to stop this fire. Cooler temperatures and decreased winds at night and a fuel break where the Forest Service thinned out brush and trees a few years ago."

Willis and USFS Division Chief Dugger Hughes, Sciacca's counterpart in the Verde Valley, agreed that the prescribed burn and mechanical thinning of fuels in the path of the fire made a big difference with fire control. If the fire kept on moving, it would have entered the Timberridge subdivision. Willis and Hughes are also members of a Type-1 Incident Management Team, the same team that was assigned to assist at the World Trade Center attack.

Evacuations Ordered

As the Indian Fire rapidly spread, it became obvious that evacuations would be essential for life safety. The Yavapai County Office of Emergency Management (YCOEM), under the direction of Coordinator Nick Angiolillo, began to mobilize resources according to the Interagency Incident Management Operating Plan for Prescott Basin.

Thirty-eight non-fire agencies, from the American Red Cross to the YMCA, were activated or assisted with essential services during the fire suppression operations. Nearly 3,000 evacuees signed into the area's evacuation centers at the fire's height.

Air Attack

Air tankers and heavy lift Sky Crane helicopters and a USFS helitack crew were instrumental in the control efforts of this wildland/urban interface fire. Firefighting aircraft are based at the USFS Prescott National Forest Fire Center. This aircraft and its personnel were not at other fire assignments when the Indian Fire began. That was a huge piece of luck.

Six air tankers flew the fire and dropped at least 33 loads of fire retardant to slow the fire's progress. The slurry drops were made with precision accuracy, as were water drops from helicopters. The large air tankers flew at treetop levels and the smaller lead "fire attack" plane preceded the tankers at high speed. All in all, it was a thrilling air show to witness.

Stand Made At Cathedral Pines

As the Indian Fire grew and continued to torch, crown out and spot ahead, plans were made to evacuate and protect the Cathedral Pines subdivision, which was in the path of the fire. The structure protection group, consisting of PFD and CYFD units, was moved into Cathedral Pines and took up a position that put the group where crews would soon be actively fighting fire.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A total loss. This was one of five homes burned during the Indian Fire.

A structure protection plan was formed. Lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones (LCES) were established. Apparatus were backed down the narrow roads in preparation for a fast escape. USFS firefighters also arrived. Structure triage was initiated. Structure protection preparation was conducted with defensible space and burn out operations around structures. The fire was coming. The sky grew dark from the growing smoke plume. First ashes, then embers fell around and onto the structures and the firefighters. Spot fires began to form. The winds increased and the flame front hit hard and fast.

The wall of flame moved into Cathedral Pines and ignited vegetation, outbuildings and homes. This was a dangerous place for firefighters to be. Life safety was the number-one priority and the firefighters were keenly aware of this. Some positioning adjustments were made. Then, a courageous and concerted firefight was mounted to save structures. Some were burning and it was determined that they could not be saved. Many others were successfully protected.

Malm, the PFD battalion chief, has been fighting fires for nearly three decades.

"I have never seen so many houses burning at one time," he said. "The fire was intense and if weather conditions were any worse that day, we probably would have lost more homes. We just got real lucky. This type of fire produces an adrenaline rush. You are competing with and fighting Mother Nature and trying to win. We made a stand. We all wanted to have no homes burned. We would not have been able to save the homes that we did save if we did not have interagency cooperation and air support."

The sights and sounds at the Cathedral Pines subdivision fire operations are still clear in my mind. The sound that a crowning wildland fire makes as it hits structures. low-flying aircraft causes one to look up and then almost duck for cover as they drop slurry or water very close to where one stands. Engines pumping water and foam and firefighters yelling orders. The sound that a large liquid propane gas (LPG) tank makes when it is heated enough by the fire to pop its pressure relief valve is like the scream of a jet engine on takeoff. The adrenaline surges!

Transition Of Command

Because of the size and complexity of the Indian Fire, a Type-1 National Incident Management Team was ordered and the fire was transitioned from local command to the Type-1 Team at 6 A.M. on Thursday, May 16. Some of the team's members are local fire personnel such as Willis and CYFD Battalion Chief Pruett Small.

A full-scale fire camp was established and total fire and management personnel was at 601. Also, 29 engines were on the scene. Acres burned totaled 1,365; suppression costs amounted to $1.2 million, with total losses and suppression costs nearing $3 million.

Burnouts, extinguishment, containment using hand crews and bulldozers, mop up and overhaul and damage assessments continued throughout the day and the next several days until the fire was declared under control and contained.

Community Gives Thanks

The Indian Fire was one of the most destructive fires to occur in the Prescott area in many years. It was the type of fire, a wildland/urban interface fire, which had been predicted by firefighters over the years. Despite the large dollar losses incurred, the potential for dramatically larger losses was ever present during this incident. This larger potential loss was averted and prevented as a direct result of exceptional fire planning, interagency cooperation and fire suppression efforts that excelled in all phases. The potential for a catastrophic wildland/urban interface fire that would dwarf the Indian Fire looms real. According to Willis, "There were over 2,000 homes directly threatened by the Indian Fire."

The community showed its appreciation to its fire and emergency services personnel individually and collectively with accolades of praises and thanks through newspaper ads, cards and notes, calls to cooperating agencies, handshakes and pats on the back.

As our community banded together on Sunday, May 19, a large gathering of citizens, fire and emergency services personnel and their families and friends and politicians publicly honored all those who fought the Indian Fire. During this celebration, an area of the Indian Fire flared anew and, true to their calling, many of those that were being honored responded back to the fire to put it down one more time.

The following are excerpts from the YCOEM "event log" of the Indian Fire:

  • 2:55 P.M. - Notice of start of the Indian Fire.
  • 3:29 - Yavapai County Sheriff's Office notified and enroute. Other law enforcement enroute to fire.
  • 4:20 - Voluntary evacuation of Ponderosa Park.
  • 4:20 - Activated American Red Cross and opened schools.
  • 4:21 - Activated Animal Disaster Services.
  • 4:50 - Fire has exploded out to several hundred acres.
  • 4:56 - Fire has jumped Highway 89, running hard, now 500 acres.
  • 5:00 - Evacuate Ponderosa Park via Groom Creek area.
  • 5:17 - Prescott Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activated.
  • 5:27 - Evacuate Mountain Club and Cathedral Pines subdivisions.
  • 6:03 - Possible evacuation of Haisley Homestead, the fire is at 900 acres.
  • 6:05 - Chapel Rock Camp has 185 campers with no transportation.
  • 6:15 - Three buses dispatched to Chapel Rock Camp.
  • 6:25 - Buses at Chapel Rock, loading of campers is complete.
  • 6:35 - Structures burning on Quiet Lane, Cathedral Pines.
  • 6:52 - Home on Jack Pine Lane (Cathedral Pines) has 100 pounds of gunpowder and guns.
  • 7:26 - Judy Willis (PFD fire chief's wife) has churches ready to open.
  • 7:39 - Fire crews will need lodging, area motels respond to that request.
  • 7:41 - Salvation Army has food ready for fire crews.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is employed by the Prescott, AZ, Fire Department with its Wildland/Urban Interface Hazard Fuels Reduction Team. He is a member of the Prescott Area W/UI Commission, a retired Boston Fire Department district fire chief, an adjunct instructor at Yavapai College and a Structure Protection Specialist. Comments and questions are welcomed at 928-541-9215 or via e-mail at